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We will meet the challenges faced to ensure fairer future for NI society

Sir Keir Starmer and Louise Haigh

Sir Keir Starmer and Louise Haigh write for the Belfast Telegraph on Labour's vision for the province


Sir Keir Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer

It takes courage - as the late Mo Mowlam said - "to push things forward". On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. With it a long-held desire to build a new future was realised.

Two decades on that dream of a shared future based on partnership and peace has been no illusion. An entire generation has grown up without the same conflict or violence, a precious prize many wouldn't have dreamt possible.

For Labour, as co-signatories to peace under the leadership of Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam, it remains one of our proudest achievements.

Today, as we meet political leaders from across Northern Ireland, we know relations haven't been as they should in recent years.

We are determined to renew Labour's historic commitment to work as honest brokers and trusted partners with communities and parties across Northern Ireland to meet the profound challenges we face and build a fairer future.

Our commitment to the political settlement is unshakeable. But we also know the signing of that agreement was only the beginning.

The peace process has always demanded a prosperity process to secure it. Yet the economic challenges Northern Ireland faces today are serious, and they come at a time when trust in the UK Government among communities across Northern Ireland has been badly shaken.

Louise Haigh

As Belfast Telegraph readers know only too well, those challenges are multiplying for families and communities. Unemployment has more than doubled in two months and foundational employers like Bombardier have announced redundancies.

We need a response from the Government that matches the scale of the crisis. That's why Labour is demanding a 'Back to Work' Budget with a focus on one thing - jobs, jobs, jobs.

That must include flexibility in the furlough scheme, as politicians in the Executive have demanded, to protect workers in industries like hospitality and aerospace.

It must also include job creation schemes to stave off the mass unemployment that caused such hardship and pain here in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nor can UK ministers afford to ignore the consequences of the last decade. The hope in the days after peace of a "future as great as our vision allows" has been undermined by the grinding unfairness of under-investment. Billions have been taken out of public services, leaving the highest NHS waiting times in the UK and nurses, teachers and other workers significantly underpaid.

As we move out of this crisis, rejuvenating Northern Ireland's economy will warrant particular attention if the full promise of peace is to be realised. Northern Ireland shouldn't be overlooked in Westminster - something Labour recognised in office but which the Conservatives have failed to grasp time and again.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in their approach to the single biggest change in trading relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in generations.

Businesses are crying out for detail on what the new arrangements will look like and are desperate to make it work. But with 27 weeks until the border changes come into force, very little is known. A lack of detail and engagement from senior ministers is not wise at any time, but in the middle of an economic crisis it is irresponsible.

Northern Ireland must not be an afterthought. It's time ministers come clean about the scale of the checks they spent so long denying would ever be implemented at all.

Too often in recent years ministers have let communities here down. With trust fragile and huge challenges facing Northern Ireland, the value of an honest broker and partner is needed now more than ever.

As Mo Mowlam said, "It's the real life of people that needs changing."

The future that communities here deserve must emerge out of this crisis.

The lives of ordinary people must - again - be permanently changed for the better.

Sir Keir Starmer is leader of the Labour Party. Louise Haigh is shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph